Are garden cities the magic wand for new housing in the south east?

Garden cities are becoming increasingly popular in the South East of England, but are they really the magic wand for meeting our housing needs? Matthew Woodhead, partner at DHA Planning partner, considers the issue.

The Town and Country Planning Association define garden cities as 'holistically planned new settlement which enhances the natural environment and offers high-quality affordable housing and locally accessible work in beautiful, healthy and sociable communities'

The concept of new garden cities is certainly not a new one.  Ebenezer Howard in 1898 devised the idea as an alternative to the industrial slums and with the idea of designing new settlements with green space at their heart. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were the first examples to be built.

In 2017 the government announced that in order to help address our growing housing crisis that 14 garden cities would be built between 1,500 – 10,000 homes outside of the existing settlements.  A further three exceeding 10,000 homes each are also proposed.

This concept seems to have gathered pace in more recent months as Local Authorities try to get to grips with their housing need and allocating enough land to meet the Objectively Assessed Need (OAN).  With a new standard methodology of calculating the housing need proposed in the draft NPPF many of these Authorities in the south east are looking at needing even higher numbers.

In the south east region alone there is already Ebbsfleet Garden City developing 15,000 homes, 5,000 homes at Chilmington Garden Village, Ashford, and the proposed Otterpool Park Garden Town in Folkestone and Hythe (10,000 homes).  Tandridge Council have recently announced their draft location of South Godstone for a new settlement (5,000 homes).  On top of this both Tunbridge Wells and Swale Borough’s have recently undertaken a consultation “call for sites” exercise asking for locations for new settlements to be put forward.  There are also rumours of other Authorities following suit as they review their Local Plans.

Why new settlements?

So why the rise in popularity of new settlements for Local Plans when the trend in the last decade has been more towards a dispersal model of extending existing built up areas in areas of higher sustainability? 

Having been involved directly for over 20 years in promoting and bringing forward many sites allocated in Local Plans, which adjoin existing urban areas, I know first hand that the NIMBY view is still very much alive and kicking.  Whilst there is a growing recognition that we have a housing crisis and a huge need for new homes there is still a huge reluctance to accept that this should be near their own properties.  A great deal of this is rooted in the concerns over infrastructure and whether the roads, doctors, and schools will actually cope and ever see the many millions of contributions that developers are paying as part of legal agreements with planning permissions. 

In addition are Local Authorities struggling to find enough good sites with good infrastructure and connected to built up areas to be able to meet this need?  Villages such as Boughton Monchelsea in Kent have effectively been collecting land to a Village Trust in order to create their own green belt around the village to protect it from development in the future and other green-eyed villages are looking to follow suit.  We have also experienced vast landscape buffers added to the edges of schemes which effectively sterilise the next-door land from future development and makes the job for the next head of planning policy so much harder. 

So, are new settlements or garden cities a solution to this?  I would argue they have potential to positively assist for the following reasons: 

  • New settlements are often more isolated from immediate built up areas, so only a few remote homeowners are affected.  There is therefore a lot less chance of objection.  If it is a major extension to an existing village then you are dealing with one village, one ward, one Parish Council and potentially fewer Councillors in objection than spread across your whole Borough.
  • New settlements also come with their own infrastructure like roads, schools and doctors to meet the need generated by the quantum of development proposed, so less burden on the existing, often creaking, infrastructure. 
  • Most new settlements are greenfield sites so there are not the abnormal costs associated with some brownfield sites.  This means the Council are more likely to achieve a policy compliant affordable housing provision and other contributions.
  • With an effective blank canvas, the settlements can be planned and designed from scratch using the garden city principles and all the best practise in place making and urban design.

Magic wand?

However, to say new settlements are the magic wand in solving the housing crisis or even just meeting the housing needs of one Borough would be a mistake. 

Council’s constantly need to show they have a deliverable 5 year supply of housing and new settlements take time to put together and establish.  Even with several separate developers building and selling on site at the same time delivery rates are rarely quick enough to deliver all of the Council’s housing needs.  In addition, you are also relying on only one market area for sales.

DHA would suggest that with early reviews of Local Plans seemingly being favoured by Inspectors recently we may see the rise of the “Blended Approach”.  Unappealing phrase that it is, I believe that if new settlements are to be part of the approach by Local Authorities to meet their housing need going forward they will still need a number of 50-500 unit sites too to keep the supply going and underpin delivery rates.  So for the time being and the housing need as it is my view is we need both!

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